Californians witnessed tremendous change to their state during the decade of the Great Depression. This was due to California's economy, which was healthy when compared to other states. Three industries, in particular, thrived in the 1930s and attracted thousands of new settlers: agriculture, oil production and film making. Since these industries were concentrated in southern California, that region captured the designation of economic center of the state.
Dust Bowl Refugees
After suffering through several years of severe drought and joblessness, farm workers from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri began arriving at the fruit and vegetable fields of the San Joaquin Valley in the mid-1930s, looking for work. Known generically as "Okies," between 300,000 and 400,000 migrated to California. Between 1933 and 1935, wind-generated dust storms produced clouds of blowing top soil in western Kansas and in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. The press labelled those coming into California "Dust Bowl" refugees because of this phenomena. However, few in the stream of immigrants came from the sparsely-populated areas hit by the dust storms. Although many of them found temporary employment, living conditions were harsh, and tents or patched-together shacks provided shelter for the families. These impoverished refugees, whose plight was immortalized by California author John Steinbeck in his novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," and by photographer Dorothea Lange in her haunting portraits, became the most recognizable symbol of the Great Depression.
Mexican Migrant Workers
Before the 1930s, at least three-fourths of California's farm workers were Mexican or Mexican-American. Farm owners recruited them, believing that they would tolerate miserable living conditions because they earned more in the United States than they did in Mexico. When the refugees from the Great Plains began arriving desperate for jobs, white trade unions fought for the hiring of the Okies. Responding to pressure from the farm owners, California state and local governments began a deportation program, sending Mexicans, and even some Mexican-Americans, back to Mexico in buses and boxcars. This was a significant event, leading to tensions between California's Anglo and Hispanic populations that continue today.
Hollywood's Golden Age
During the 1930s, the motion picture industry experienced revolutions in sound and color production. "Talkies" were being introduced at the beginning of the decade, and most 1930s films were black-and-white. In the last year of the decade, however, two Technicolor masterpieces, "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind," were released. A number of film genres, such as musicals, westerns, screwball comedies, gangster films and horror shows, developed during the 1930s. Animation became more sophisticated in the hands of the pioneering Walt Disney Studios. Creative people from around the country were migrating to California to participate in the expanding medium.
Works Progress Administration
To help with demands being made on the infrastructure by the population explosion, the Works Progress Administration, one of the federal New Deal programs, made improvements in many areas. Every public park in San Francisco benefited from WPA upgrades. Urban streets and sidewalks, rural roads and bridges still in use in California are WPA constructions. Nearly every small town in the state boasts a school built or renovated by the group. WPA workers built many more schools than prisons because the national philosophy was that if the young are given schools conducive to learning, fewer prisons will be required.
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